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Strong performances can't rescue this 'Baby'

Fans of John Singleton's Boyz N the Hood will be disappointed by his directionless new entry from the streets of South Central L.A.

By PHILIP BOOTH

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 28, 2001


photo
[Columbia Pictures]
At 20, Jody (Tyrese Gibson), with son Joe (Kylan/Kaylan Bolton), has fathered two children by two different women.
Call me a conspiracy theorist if you will, but something sure smells funny about the way movies aimed at African-American youths are released on Wednesdays, rather than on Fridays.

John Singleton's drama Baby Boy is the seventh such film to get the unequal treatment in the past two years, according to a count by one observer.

Also on that list are last year's rap-related flicks Backstage and Turn It Up. Could the odd practice be the result of theater owners' paranoia that white flight away from the multiplexes would result if such films were given traditional openings? Is there another good explanation?

Now that that's out of the way, another complaint, this time directed at Columbia Pictures: Why has the latest from Singleton (Shaft, Poetic Justice) been marketed as a kind of sequel to the filmmaker's striking 1991 debut, Boyz N the Hood?

Boyz was a hard-hitting, emotionally complex drama about growing up young, black and troubled on the tough streets of South Central Los Angeles. Baby Boy, although set in roughly the same neighborhood, has neither its heart nor its soul.

The two are hardly in the same league; fans of Singleton's early work may be disappointed by the shrill, pointless exchanges, directionless nature and too-tidy conclusion of Baby Boy.

If violence isn't the answer, then how is it that a single murder solves the problems of all concerned? Are there really no moral repercussions to the act, not to mention legal hassles? Were there no other options to be explored by the triggerman?

Jody (Tyrese Gibson, a singer, model and VJ), is the film's title character, a particularly notorious victim of the Peter Pan syndrome, if you will, refusing to grow up. At 20, he has fathered two children by two different women: his reasonably levelheaded girlfriend, Yvette (Taraji P. Henson), and his childlike part-time lover, Peanut (Tamara LaSeon Bass).

But the young dad chooses to live at home with his 36-year-old mom, Juanita (A.J. Johnson), spending his time tinkering with model cars, working on low-rider bicycles and hanging out with a fellow slacker, the hotheaded Sweetpea (Omar Gooding, Cuba's brother).

Leave the nest, Juanita yells at her son. He retaliates by suggesting that she was responsible for the death of his older brother, tossed out of the house at the behest of her last boyfriend. And now there is a new man on the scene, reformed gangsta Melvin (Ving Rhames), a big man with a big ego. Big surprise: The two come to blows.

Singleton, as is his habit, elicits strong performances from his actors, particularly his star, a multitalented entertainer who might really shine if given a better role. Rhames is his usual fearsome self, a hard-bodied tough guy with an electrifying screen presence, and Johnson does fine work as a world-weary survivor, a former teenage mother seeking peace and love after all these years.

Snoop Dogg, the gangsta rapper, adds sparks as a scary ex-con, a doper equipped with a laconic drawl and a menacing swagger. But it's too little, too late.

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MOVIE REVIEW

Baby Boy

Grade: C

Director: John Singleton

Cast: Tyrese Gibson, Omar Gooding, A.J. Johnson, Taraji P. Henson, Snoop Dogg, Tamara LaSeon Bass, Ving Rhames

Screenplay: John Singleton

Rating: R; language, sex, nudity, violence

Running time: 129 min.

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